Who has pottered by this way, then?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Veronica: revealing the true image of Christ. A study in disability?

Stations of the Cross - No. 4: Veronica Wipes Jesus' Face
My video-mediation on this Station of the Cross can be viewed over at the BigBible site as part of their Easter Journeys series.

Just a few thoughts for you, after you have watched it...

Take a moment - it's a very short Bible passage - to read about what some traditions believe to have been Veronica's previous encounter with Jesus in Chapter 9 of St. Matthew's Gospel  when her faith led her to seek healing by touching his cloak. Let's assume for the purposes of marshalling our thoughts, that the woman being written about here was indeed Veronica.

First encounter
Veronica was a chronically ill woman who had been bleeding for twelve years, and would therefore have been ceremonially unclean according to Jewish Law and unable to enter the Temple. She was an outcast as far as the community was concerned. Her condition was shameful - how on earth could she even speak of it to anyone? It would have been unthinkable to ask Jesus for healing, to say what she required healing for out loud. But, Veronica thinks, she could anonymously touch his cloak and who would know? If you read this encounter in the wider context of that chapter of Matthew, you can see that Jesus is in the middle of a whole heap of healings. In fact, this healing is almost mentioned in brackets in the middle of another healing - while he is on the way to raise the synagogue-leader's daughter from the dead. The story itself almost hides away in Matthew's Gospel every bit as much as Veronica herself tries to. Jesus knows what she has done and recognises the faith that lay behind it. Not only is she healed without a word being spoken, her faith is praised.

People's needs are not always visible. They are not always obvious. Sometimes, there is a more pressing need which is obscured by the blindingly obvious. And aren't these healings somewhat awkward to our modern way of thinking: disability somehow being equated with sinfulness? And why does the Saviour, whose primary ministry is to reconcile people to their Creator through the forgiveness of their sins, put healing in such a prominent place in his public ministry?

Meeting needs
Consider the paralysed man who was lowered by his friends through the roof to be healed by Jesus. Jesus doesn't immediately heal him of his paralysis, rather he forgives him his sins. Jesus sees beyond the man's disability, beyond the blindingly obvious fact that the man cannot walk. He sees beyond this to what the man's real need for healing is: he needs to have his sins forgiven. I imagine his friends weren't immediately happy with this response: they'd gone to a lot of trouble to take their friend to the great healer, they'd had to pull back the roofing and find some means of lowering him down on a stretcher, so I imagine that having gone to all that bother to try to get him healed, to have Jesus speaking of forgiveness rather than healing possibly got them at least confused, and - had it been me (if I'm honest) angry. However, Jesus goes on to show his power over sin by doing what the man and his friends had sought: he commands him to pick up his bed and walk. For Jesus, it is as easy to proclaim healing as it is to offer forgiveness, and part of the significance of Jesus's healing ministry is that one of the signs of the promised Messiah was that he would perform healing miracles.

However, the fact that Jesus himself forgives the man's sins tells us who Jesus is: as the Pharisees themselves ask, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?". These stories of healing actually serve to remind us that we are all disabled, all needing to be restored into the image of God - our true image. None of us is fully "fit for purpose" as a human being until we're perfected in Christ, our true image restored. We glimpse this true image in Jesus and the Christian journey is one of transformation as part of the universal Church, the Body of Christ, more fully into Christ's image. Being visibly disabled, or having that label thrust upon oneself through illness, accident or sheer dumb luck does not make that person any more or less deserving of God's forgiveness. We all, equally, need to be restored into God's image. These healings of Jesus are a visible, outward sign of an inner truth: Jesus can restore us into our true image, physical healing in Christ's earthly ministry being an outward sign of the more complete restoration of our selves into a more Christ-like version of us: our true image. In the video 'True Image', some of the people whose photos appear there have a disability or long-term illness or other condition. It didn't matter, did it? All the images spoke as part of the same message.

Second encounter
And so, back to Veronica. Healed, and restored by Jesus's healing of her bleeding, we next see her on the Way of the Cross. The tables are turned: it is Jesus who is in need, struggling under the weight of the cross and Veronica once more finds herself among a crowd. Veronica, who as a ritually unclean woman had previously needed to be as anonymous as possible is now restored to her place in the community. She steps forward to meet Jesus's needs in a simple, practical, loving act of wiping his face. Jesus must, by this time, already have been pretty badly disfigured and disabled by his injuries. In Matthew's account, we read of him having been scourged, having a crown of thorns pressed into his head and having been beaten with reeds. The scourging alone would have left him a pretty bloody mess, in a lot of pain and already weakened. Scourging was such a serious form of punishment that it could kill prisoners even before they got as far as the crucifixion. A medical explanation which, BE WARNED, is not for the faint-hearted and is extremely unpleasant reading can be found by clicking on this. So wiping Jesus' face was in the most obvious sense an inadequate response to a heavily bleeding, already dying man. What good could it do? Well, it was kind. Amid all the horror and butchery of Good Friday, it was a kind act. Simple, loving, human contact in the midst of viciousness and cruelty. The image of Christ was revealed in Veronica herself as much as on her cloth. She saw Jesus as a broken, disabled man, now an outcast from society and she identified herself with him, not merely watching as he walked by but stepping forward to help him, just being a loving human being alongside him which was all she could realistically offer. Our own society's treatment of the disabled is currently shocking, with a national media and political rhetoric which routinely labels them as benefit scrounging scum, and where 32 people who have been pronounced ineligible for incapacity benefit die each week. We should follow Veronica's example and step out of the crowd and identify ourselves with them.

True Image
From Good Friday through to Easter Sunday we see Jesus being more fully revealed: his true image becomes apparent. He is not just another failed Messiah, many of whom were crucified by the Romans. What was special about Jesus was who he was: he was God-with-us who died to take away the sins of the world and who rose from the dead, victorious over sin and even death itself. His true image as Saviour was fully revealed to those who could see it. Veronica had a foretaste of that and, in the light of Christ's death and resurrection, we can take that image out into the world ourselves and similarly transform it through his love.

Bless you all this Easter, whether you are disabled, or not yet disabled.

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